Moving past 'please pass the salt' in teen-parent communication

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There comes a time in some teen-agers' lives when communication with parents limps to a standstill. The preteen daughter who followed Mom around the kitchen chatting a mile a minute now answers in one-syllable words and volunteers little or no information. The junior-high son who readily shared his viewpoint on any subject has turned into a sullen sophomore with nothing to add to family dinnertime conversation except ''Pass the salt.''

This ''quiet stage'' can be hard on conscientious parents. We're constantly told by experts to ''keep lines of communication open'' between ourselves and our adolescents, but no one explains how to accomplish this feat when teens ignore our very presence.

Why do teens temporarily stop talking to parents? And what should we be doing about it?

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It's important to remember that the primary job of the adolescent is to break away from the secure parent/child relationship, and eventually become a mature adult. Breaking away all at once is too risky, of course, and so a teen-ager seeks smaller ways of testing his independence. One of these is a temporary withdrawal from the closeness he once shared with Mom and Dad.

This doesn't mean that we have lost our influence with a teen; on the contrary, he or she needs our stability to balance youthful inconsistency. It doesn't mean that, for a time, a teen won't acknowledge our influence or his desire for our guidance and care. He's trying to see how everything fits into the new person he's becoming.

Ultimately, most teens decide that a good relationship with parents is definitely worth keeping, and at that stage they're willing to work harder to bring this relationship about. In the meantime, however, how can parents continue to encourage communication?

* Are we available? With the advent of double wage-earners or single parenthood, time is at a premium in many homes. Yet it's important that our children know we are willing to be with them (even if they choose some particularly bad moments to unburden themselves). Tell your teens: ''You need privacy, and I don't want to pry. But I want you to know I'm here when you need me.''

* Are we really listening? When teens do talk, much of their conversation seems tedious and trivial to adult ears, but if we tune our child out when she's talking about little things, she may find other more interested listeners when she's got something important to discuss. Instead of murmuring ''uh-huh'' at suitable intervals, try to give your adolescents some attention when they do decide to talk. Maintain eye contact, smile, ask a follow-up question, let them know that you're glad they're sharing this moment with you. The warmth of your interest will linger long after the conversation ends.

* Are we judgmental? Many teens like to ''think out loud,'' bouncing ideas around to clarify their viewpoints. Unfortunately, a lot of parents take these musings seriously, and respond with attacks, threats or put-downs. Aim instead for a friendly accepting attitude when talking with your children. If you differ , make sure they know you're rejecting their ideas or plans but not them.

* Are we looking for other ways to communicate? When the spoken word just doesn't work, other methods can convey the ''I care'' message. Teens are not too big to be hugged (even if they turn away in embarrassment), and an embrace, pat on the shoulder, or touch on a cheek can speak volumes. Leaving a friendly note somewhere can help; so can a funny card stuck in a lunch sack.

A temporarily silent teen will not open up easily under any circumstances. And yet real communication can still take place. If we let our teen know that he is loved and valued, no matter what mood he's in today, we set the stage for a more satisfying relationship tomorrow.

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